Governor Charlie Baker on Friday signed a bill strengthening Massachusetts’ much-maligned public records law, which was considered one of the weakest in the country.
How will the new legislation make government more transparent? Here are 5 ways:
1. Judges will be able to make the state, cities, and towns pay citizens’ lawyers’ fees if a court finds they inappropriately withheld public records
Massachusetts is currently one of only three states in the country where citizens have no hope at all of recovering their legal fees — let alone damages — even if they win a public records lawsuit. The new law says “there shall be a presumption” that citizens are entitled to recoup their legal fees in many cases. That still falls short of the standard in many other states, however. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts found most other states make recovery of legal fees mandatory in at least some cases.
2. The bill will require digital, as opposed to paper, responses where possible, and limit the sometimes-exorbitant fees that municipalities and the state charge for providing public information
Currently, there are few limits on the amount agencies can charge in labor fees to locate, review and copy documents, and government officials often insist on providing records on paper, allowing them to charge additional fees per page. Under the new law, state agencies will only be able to charge labor fees for requests that take more than four hours, while cities and towns with more than 20,000 residents will only be able to charge labor fees for requests that take more than two hours.
The law also limits the labor fee to $25 per hour, though cities and towns will be able to seek permission from the Supervisor of Records to charge more. And government agencies of all sizes will need permission to charge labor fees to redact documents (unless the redactions are required by law).
3. Agencies and communities will get more time to fulfill requests for public information
The current law requires agencies to comply with requests within 10 calendar days, but agencies routinely ignore the deadline and take weeks, months or even years to fulfill requests. The new law has more generous timetables, but advocates hope that agencies will be required to follow them for fear of being sued.
Under the new law, cities and towns will now have 10 business days (instead of 10 calendar days) to initially respond to requests, plus another 25 business days to fulfill the requests. State agencies would have 10 business days for the initial response, plus 15 business days to fulfill the requests. Government officials would also be able to seek an extension of up to 30 days from the state Supervisor of Records.
4. Documents from the MBTA Retirement Board, which manages a $1.6 billion pension fund for transit workers, will become public records
In response to a lawsuit brought by the Globe, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled this year that the board’s documents are covered by the public records law — just like any other agency that receives government funds. But the MBTA pension fund has continued to contest that court ruling. The new law tries to make it clearer that, indeed, the Legislature intended for the retirement agency to be covered by the open records law.
5. The bill calls for committees to study eliminating certain other exemptions
Massachusetts is currently the one state in the country where the Legislature, judiciary, and governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt from the law. The new law won’t change that, but it does call for a special commission to study the issue.
A working group would also study whether to modify the exemptions for certain police records. In a controversial ruling, the state Supervisor of Records recently ruled that law enforcement agencies have complete discretion on when to release arrest reports, mug shots and jail booking logs — allowing them to withhold the names of police officers caught drunk driving, for example. The Globe filed a lawsuit last year to challenge that ruling, but the suit is still pending.